We the People! An NGO view

Globalisation in its current form cannot deliver the benefits expected of it. Civil society, particularly in developing countries, must ensure that it does.  

A few years ago someone predicted the "end of history", and the end of conflicts, material and of ideas, as all countries and people embrace the shared goal of free markets and liberal democracy.

But the end of the Cold War did not usher in universal prosperity or brotherhood. Instead, we stand at the beginning of a new millenium, facing the serious crises handed over from the last one. The scandal of poverty remains more entrenched, and there are rising inequalities between countries, social classes, men and women, indigenous people and those who want to colonise their resources. Instead of peace and security, there is conflict and insecurity, some resulting from global pressures and from inequities and poverty. There is the environmental crisis, raising questions about survival of the Earth and humanity. There are the risks of technology going wrong, such as in nuclear power, toxic chemicals and genetic engineering. In the area of health, scientists are predicting the end of the antibiotics era as disease-bearing bacteria and viruses overcome overused antibiotics, posing the threat of new epidemics.

Globalisation is another feature of our age. There are different attitudes to this phenomenon. Some say it is inevitable and basically good, that we have to adjust to it and learn to reap the benefits. Others worry about the costs and advocate some safety nets for the losers. In truth, the essence of globalisation is the push by big companies and financial institutions to have more power, to grow bigger through taking over others, and make more profits. They have lobbied their governments, of the rich countries, to break down the national barriers that prevent them from totally free access to markets across the world, especially in the developing countries.

These economies had suffered during colonialism, so in the first phase of independence, many of their governments instituted measures to boost their weak domestic firms, banks and farms. They had affirmative action policies in favour of the local economy, and defended them from predatory big foreign business. These big firms now want to break down the barriers so that they might take over the local firms and farms of these developing countries and strengthen their monopoly. Thus we now see the liberalisation of trade, finance and investment. But in areas where the big companies and their governments would lose from liberalisation, they practise protectionism. They impose high intellectual property standards, for example, which is protectionist since it helps them to hinder technology transfer.

Globalisation as practised today is a kind of apartheid. It is a misleading term and it skirts the issue to talk only in terms of "sharing better the benefits of globalisation" and helping the "marginalised". This presumes that globalisation only produces benefits, but some gain more than others. In reality, globalisation creates benefits for some, losses for others, and worse, some of the benefits of the gainers generate losses for the losers.

Globalisation is a new form of colonialism. When the people fought against slavery, apartheid and colonialism, they did not speak in terms of sharing better the benefits of slavery or apartheid or colonialism. They fought the systems themselves. So too we cannot just talk of sharing better the benefits of globalisation. We have to fight the system of globalisation itself.

Power problem 

The crux of the problem is the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the world. We must recognise this and not skirt the issue. Those that hold power and wealth want to keep it and protect it. Thus we see the double standards that exist between what is preached and what is practised.

There has been the successful campaign to ban land mines, which was a victory of the people's movements. But the nuclear powers still refuse to ban nuclear weapons. There is much talk and conditionality about transparency and democracy at the national level; we NGOs have been part of this campaign in our countries. But the major countries refuse to democratise at the international level, where the global decisions are taken mainly by the G8 or the OECD or the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO. And this without the adequate participation of smaller nations, let alone civil society.

Whatever happened to the UN? It has been disempowered not because it is inefficient, but because it is too transparent and too democratic, and its decisions are taken with the participation of all countries. The Security Council is the exception. UN decisions are taken on the basis of one country, one vote. This did not favour the minority of large powers, which decided in the early 1990s to reform and reshape the UN, and to transfer its authority on economic and social issues over to the IMF, World Bank and WTO. The IMF and World Bank's decisions are on the basis of one dollar one vote. The WTO has a system of decision-making that at crucial moments has excluded most developing countries, including through the notorious "green rooms”.

Clearly, this cannot continue. We need a democratisation of global institutions, and to inject people's rights into them. For that to happen, the big powers have to agree to loosen their grip on international institutions and relations. They will do this only when people movements and civil society demand it.

We need democratisation and transparency in the private sector too, in financial markets and transnational companies alike. We need to voice our concern about their concentration of wealth through takeovers and mergers, and their ability to destroy the wealth of small countries through financial speculation. In short, we need a transformation of the financial system and institutions.

As to the multilateral trading system, change is needed there too. The WTO's operating principles have caused dislocation. Many of its agreements are flawed and should be changed. For example, the agriculture agreement that leads to import liberalisation in developing countries threatens millions of rural livelihoods and food security. Food products of developing countries intended for local consumption should be excluded from the agreement's obligations on import liberalisation and domestic subsidy. The TRIPS agreement on intellectual property will raise prices of medicines, prevent technology transfer and facilitate biopiracy. How ironic for a trade organisation that is supposed to promote liberalisation, not protectionism!

The UN by contrast should be strengthened. Yes, it should also be reformed, especially in its decision-making structure and at the level of the Security Council. Rich countries should not hold back their payment to the UN, whose future depends on its regaining its former legitimate role in economic and social policymaking. The World Bank, IMF and WTO will have important roles to play, but only by promoting the right policies and assuming more appropriately-sized roles.

And so, We the Peoples must go beyond the nice words of diplomats and bureaucrats, cautious and polite language. We must strive to identify and remove the sources of poverty and conflict and the inequality of wealth. In doing so, we must first honour and pay homage to those who fought to overthrow the big oppressive forces of slavery, feudalism and colonialism. Who fought to give rights to ordinary and poor people, the small farmers and peasants, the workers in factories, the jobless and homeless. Those who fight for people's rights to a good environment. The local communities who fought against toxic waste dumps. The indigenous people and their supporters who fight against destruction of their forests and rivers. Those who are struggling, with their lives for land reform and property rights, for rights to decent pay and conditions, for the destitute in slums and plantations.

No, history is not about to end. We pledge to absorb the spirit and lessons of these champions of change and to take on the struggles of the new age. We the people can work towards a world that is socially just and ecologically sustainable, peaceful and secure. We invite the world’s governments, and agencies like OECD, to join us. But with or without them, we the people have no choice but to carry on, to fulfil our mission of bringing about a better world.

This article is based on a speech given at the Opening Session of the Millennium Forum, UN General Assembly Hall, New York, 22 May 2000.

©OECD Observer No 221/222, Summer 2000 

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